The homeruncentricity trifecta: 1869-1969by Steve Treder
August 07, 2007
Batters whose value is unusually centered on the delivery of home runs are a subject I never tire of contemplating. One particular time you may recall we had some fun with it was here.
I guess it must be the all-or-nothing tradeoff aspect that fascinates me. If these guys were, say, investors, they wouldn't maintain a diversified portfolio—they'd throw every egg into a single high-risk, high-return basket, and usually sink but occasionally soar. It's an exceedingly bold, fearless approach, and perhaps it intrigues meek, risk-averse me in a Walter Mitty-ish sort of way.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, while sitting in an airport waiting for a plane, I was thinking about the issue of batters whose proportion of home runs to hits is greater than their batting average. A guy whose BA is .250 gets a hit in one of every four at-bats, right? Well, there are some .250-ish hitters who, when they do get a hit, have a greater than one-in-four chance of that hit being a home run—you know the type. They're rare, but they exist; in 2006, for example, both Andruw Jones and Troy Glaus, to name just a couple, achieved this feat.
Such a hitter is obviously quite home run-centric in his offensive value. But thinking about it further, that's just one of the ways in which a hitter can be home run-centric. We generally use not just batting average, but also on-base percentage and slugging average to more comprehensively summarize type and quality of batting performance. With the trio of BA, OBP and SLG, we can perceive a great deal about a hitter.
So, what about a guy who not only delivers home runs as a greater proportion of hits than he does hits as a proportion of at-bats ... how about if he also exceeds his OBP and SLG in some meaningful home run-centric manner? How about if he demonstrates an extreme bias toward home runs in not just one, not just two, but all three ways? If he does that, he is, truly, capturing the homeruncentricity trifecta!
So on the airplane I pulled out my laptop and played around with some figures. Once I had the idea, it all came together pretty simply (which is how my ideas tend to be: simple). Here, then, are the official criteria for the homeruncentricity trifecta:
- HR/H greater than or equal to BA. This is the first element of homeruncentricity, which we'll call HRC A.
- HR/BB greater than or equal to OBP. This is the second element, called HRC B.
- Total bases of home runs as a proportion of total bases (that is, HR*4/TB) greater than or equal to SLG. This is HRC C.
To hit the trifecta, a batter must achieve all three; a negative result in any of these categories throws him out, no matter how high he might score in the others. The sum of these three positive elements, HRC A + HRC B + HRC C, is the total homeruncentricity trifecta score: HRC TR.
Just how rare an achievement has the homeruncentricity trifecta been throughout history? Pretty doggone rare, but perhaps not as rare as one might think. Starting today, we'll examine all the times it's happened in the major leagues. We'll limit our inquiry to full-season regulars, or something pretty close to that: 400 plate appearances will be our minimum threshold.
The prehomeruncentricity ages
In the beginning, there was no homeruncentricity. This was, of course, because in the early decades of major league ball there were very few home runs. Throughout the 19th century, and into the early decades of the 20th, no batter ever came remotely close to achieving any element of the trifecta, let alone all three.
In the 1920s, with the introduction of the live ball and the elimination of the spitball (or a ball soiled, stained or softened in any manner), the game changed dramatically. Suddenly the home run became far more frequent, and following the lead of Babe Ruth, some hitters began to adopt a swing-for-homers approach. But still, the homeruncentricity trifecta remained elusive. A couple of guys in the '20s came fairly close to the trifecta: Cy Williams in 1923, and Ruth in his illness-marred season of 1925. But nobody reached it.
Nor was this summit successfully climbed in the 1930s. Again, only a few hitters approached it: Rudy York in 1937, and Hank Greenberg and Joe Gordon in 1938.
But as the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, conditions in the game were changing again. Night baseball was coming into practice, and the reduced visibility (especially with the primitive stadium lighting systems of the day) pushed down batting averages. So did improvements in fielding gloves, and the consistent quality of groundskeeping. So did the increasingly sophisticated use of bullpens, including the rise of relief pitching specialists.
At the same time, because of the enduring popularity of the home run among fans, outfield dimensions were generally smaller than they'd been in prior decades, and teams began intentionally manipulating outfield fences (often with easily moveable chain link) to stimulate home run production. So in the 1940s, as batting averages and scoring in general declined, the rate of home runs didn't (outside of the World War II seasons in which an inferior-quality ball was used); indeed in the late 1940s the home run rate climbed to new-record levels.
The scene was now set for the appearance of an intrepid homeruncentricity trifecta pioneer.
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1946 Pat Seerey CLE A R 404 15 2 26 65 .225 .334 .465 .061 .066 .088 .215Pat Seerey was a terrific athlete—a burly young man (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) with tremendous power, who ran and threw well enough to play quite a bit of major league center field. As we discovered here, as a teenager Seerey had put together a couple of extremely impressive slugging seasons in the low minor leagues.
Due to the wartime player shortage, Seerey was rushed to the majors, probably before he was really ready. He got lots of playing time with Cleveland in 1944 and 1945, and though the balata ball significantly inhibited his home run production, he demonstrated very impressive power. Seerey led the American League in fewest at-bats per home run in 1944, and was second in '45. Alas, he also struck out at an alarming rate, leading the league in that category by a comfortable margin in both seasons, and his batting average was quite low.
With the war's end in 1946, Seerey at last had the chance to show what he could do against a fully lively baseball. The Indians gave him another opportunity, as a more-or-less regular, with time in right field, center and left. The result was a stat line quite unlike any seen before in major league baseball. Seerey delivered home runs at a rate superior to that of Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller, and nearly as good as that of Ted Williams. But his strikeout rate remained as high as had ever been seen in the major leagues, and his batting average was even lower than it had been during the war.
Seerey was a quite productive hitter overall in 1946: His OPS+ was 129. But, of course, no one calculated OPS+ in those days, and the consensus around Seerey was that, despite his power production, unless he significantly cut down on the whiffs and raised the average, he'd never make it. He would slump badly in 1947, and lose his regular playing time. In 1948 the White Sox would pick him up, and Seerey would deliver a performance similar to that of 1946 (though he'd miss the homeruncentricity trifecta because of too many walks). The conventional wisdom of the day failed to appreciate the value of what Seerey could do, instead focusing on what he couldn't, and he was doomed to play out the rest of his career in the minor leagues.
But he had, most definitely, blazed a homeruncentricity trail that others would eventually follow.
The freeswinging '50s
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1951 Andy Pafko CHI-BKN N R 455 16 3 30 52 .255 .347 .501 .004 .230 .025 .259This season truly was an anomaly for Andy Pafko, who had good power but was an excellent contact hitter and generally maintained a very good batting average. The Dodgers had swung a big trade to acquire him in June of 1951, and were rather disappointed in the performance Pafko delivered over the balance of the season. Dinged-up with minor injuries, Pafko didn't do a whole lot with the bat except hit homers. He would never have another season like this.
The next fellow to hit the trifecta, however, was performing true to type:
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1952 Luke Easter CLE A L 437 10 3 31 44 .263 .337 .512 .007 .368 .041 .416The major league career of Luke Easter is only a small portion of his tremendous professional career. Before the majors were integrated, Easter had spent a long time as a celebrated Negro Leagues slugging star. And, after he disappeared from the big leagues, being considered too old, Easter would spend a full decade terrorizing Triple-A pitchers, deep into his 40s.
Easter was your prototypical pure slugger: He was huge, he was slow, he couldn't field, he struck out quite a bit and he hit the ball nine miles. His 1951 season had come close to achieving the trifecta; had he been allowed to spend more time in the majors, it's likely Easter would have hit the homeruncentricity jackpot a few more times.
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1953 Frank Thomas PIT N R 455 22 1 30 50 .255 .331 .506 .004 .269 .016 .289 1953 Daryl Spencer NY N R 408 18 5 20 42 .208 .287 .424 .028 .189 .039 .256Nineteen-fifty-three was the third straight year that the trifecta was completed by a major leaguer, and for the first time two players did it. This was the first full season for Frank Thomas, and though he would never again pull off the trifecta, he would come close several times. He was a fine player, useful for his defensive versatility as well as his bat, but his offensive production was extremely home run-centric, very much a uniquely modern style.
Daryl Spencer was also a rookie, and was quite remarkable as a middle infielder displaying this sort of offensive profile. This season would prove to be unusual for Spencer, as he would never again approach the trifecta. But he was genuinely a low-average, good-power hitter, an offensive mode that remains atypical for middle infielders to this day.
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1954 Roy Campanella BKN N R 397 14 3 19 42 .207 .285 .401 .024 .167 .076 .268As we examined here, Roy Campanella's great career was extraordinary for its bumpiness; in between scaling his soaring MVP-season peaks, Campy spelunked some injury-plagued caverns. His 1956 season would narrowly miss trifecta status.
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1955 Gus Zernial KC A R 413 9 3 30 30 .254 .304 .508 .032 .696 .063 .791 1955 Del Crandall MIL N R 440 15 2 26 40 .236 .299 .456 .014 .351 .061 .427 1956 Wally Post CIN N R 539 25 3 36 37 .249 .301 .507 .019 .672 .020 .711 1957 Gus Zernial KC A R 437 20 1 27 34 .236 .290 .472 .026 .504 .052 .582 1957 Hank Sauer NY N R 378 14 1 26 49 .259 .343 .508 .007 .188 .034 .228Gus Zernial, Wally Post and Hank Sauer were very similar talents, at the vanguard of the free-swinging power-hitter style that swept through the game in the 1950s.
Of the three, Zernial was perhaps the most ahead of his time, in that not only was he a go-for-broke uppercutter, he was a devotee of weight training. Moreover, Zernial's disdain for the traditional work-the-count-and-protect-the-plate ethos was particularly arresting. To understand just how extreme Zernial's batting style was, consider this: Relative to league norms, his 38-walk, 110-strikeout season in the 1950 American League would equate to a 28-walk, 186-strikeout performance in the AL of 2006.
Del Crandall was considered among the best defensive catchers of his era, and was a good-but-not-great hitter. His offensive approach took an unusual course over his career. As a young hitter (he was 25 in the season above), though he never struck out much, Crandall hit for a low average with significant power. In later years, he apparently learned to go the other way, cutting back on his home run rate while raising his batting average.
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1958 Gus Triandos BAL A R 474 10 0 30 60 .245 .327 .456 .013 .173 .099 .286 1959 Rocky Colavito CLE A R 588 24 0 42 71 .257 .337 .512 .021 .254 .046 .321 1959 Gus Triandos BAL A R 393 7 1 25 65 .216 .330 .430 .079 .055 .162 .295 1959 Harmon Killebrew WAS A R 516 20 1 42 90 .242 .354 .529 .094 .113 .087 .294 1960 Rocky Colavito DET A R 555 18 1 35 53 .249 .317 .474 .004 .343 .058 .405Gus Triandos, on the other hand, was a catcher who hit for a pretty good average early in his career, but soon evolved into the extreme all-or-nothing sort we see above. Triandos was also notorious as the slowest baserunner of his era, the Ernie Lombardi/Bengie Molina of the 1950s.
Through most of the '50s, homeruncentricity was mostly a National League phenomenon. But toward the end of the decade, probably mostly as a function of changing ballpark configurations, it became more of an AL trademark. Rocky Colavito and Harmon Killebrew were both hitting the trifecta as emerging young sluggers, and in these same seasons four other American Leaguers were just missing it: Woodie Held, Jim Lemon, Charlie Maxwell and Roy Sievers.
Slugging into the '60s
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1961 Roger Maris NY A L 590 16 4 61 94 .269 .372 .620 .115 .277 .047 .440Many purists of the day derided Roger Maris as a mere home run hitter, and not well-rounded offensively. They were completely correct in that assessment; where they were incorrect was in the implication that Maris didn't produce a great many runs. When you hit 61 dingers, it doesn't really matter what else you do; you've automatically generated a boatload of offense. Despite his unimpressive batting average and low walk rate relative to his homers, Maris created 135 runs in 1961, far and away the most of any trifecta season in this era.
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1962 Willie Kirkland CLE A L 419 9 1 21 43 .200 .272 .377 .051 .216 .156 .423 1962 Joe Adcock MIL N R 391 12 1 29 50 .248 .333 .506 .051 .247 .080 .377 1962 Harmon Killebrew MIN A R 552 21 1 48 106 .243 .366 .546 .115 .087 .092 .294 1963 Dick Stuart BOS A R 612 25 4 42 44 .261 .312 .521 .002 .643 .006 .651 1963 Harmon Killebrew MIN A R 515 18 0 45 72 .258 .349 .555 .081 .276 .075 .431 1964 Frank Howard LA N R 433 13 2 24 51 .226 .303 .432 .019 .168 .082 .269 1964 Harmon Killebrew MIN A R 577 11 1 49 93 .270 .377 .547 .045 .150 .073 .268 1964 Boog Powell BAL A L 424 17 0 39 76 .290 .399 .606 .027 .114 .001 .142Through these seasons Killebrew peaked as a homeruncentricity titan, putting together back-to-back-to-back trifectas for the first time in history. While he would never be much of a hitter for average, in later seasons The Killer raised it a bit, and grew his walk rate as well. He never achieved another trifecta after 1964.
Willie Kirkland, as we saw here, had a terrific minor league career, superior to that of Maris. At the major league level he was pretty good for several years, but couldn't quite break through as a star, until at the age of 28 he suffered the sudden collapse of his batting average that we see above. He would never regain the ability to hit for any kind of average at all.
Joe Adcock's season above was the only one in which he hit the trifecta, but he came pretty close a couple of other times. He was another guy quite similar in style and ability to Zernial, Post and Sauer.
Before performing these calculations, I was certain Dick Stuart would have numerous trifecta seasons. However, this was the only one, though he came awfully close a few other times. Big Stu was always performing in that true trifecta spirit, at least.
The season above was the first of two trifectas for Frank Howard, and he also had a couple of near misses.
One might think Boog Powell would have multiple trifecta seasons as well, but in fact, enormous and lumbering though he was, Powell was a pretty well-rounded hitter (as well as a surprisingly soft-handed first baseman). Both his batting average and walk rate in the season above were significantly higher than typically found in trifectas, but his home run rate that year was just phenomenal, easily the best of his career.
In 1965, though several batters came close, no one achieved the trifecta, for the first time since 1950. The same scenario played out again in 1966. Among those who nearly made the mark in those seasons, but not quite, were Colavito, Stuart, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Tom Haller, Ken Harrelson, Mack Jones, Don Lock, Ron Swoboda, Tom Tresh and Fred Whitfield.
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1967 Frank Howard WAS A R 519 20 2 36 60 .256 .338 .510 .015 .262 .033 .310 1967 Jim Wynn HOU N R 594 29 3 37 74 .249 .331 .495 .001 .169 .009 .179But in '67, Hondo came through with his second trifecta. He was joined by Jim Wynn, who would spend his career as a low-average home run hitter, but who typically drew far too many walks for the trifecta.
Nobody hit the trifecta in 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, though Howard, Ernie Banks, Curt Blefary, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell all gave it a gallant effort.
Then in 1969 ... what?!?
Year Player Club L B AB 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG HRC A HRC B HRC C HRC TR 1969 Carl Yastrzemski BOS A L 603 28 2 40 101 .255 .362 .507 .005 .034 .016 .055Betcha didn't see that one coming, did you? Nobody did; it was a bolt from the blue when Carl Yastrzemski, one of the elite batting average/on-base hitters of his generation, suddenly pulled a .255, 40-homer season out of his—well, out of somewhere. As we explored here, among his many other attributes Yaz was one of the most inconsistent hitters in history, and he never had another year remotely similar to this one.
We enter the 1970s ... and you-know-who is getting ready to wreak his special havoc.
24-karat diamond-writing gems bonus
... if every time you come to bat you're looking to belt one out of the park, you're not going to be able to hit consistently. To pull the ball and hit home runs, your bat head has got to meet the ball at least two feet out in front of the plate—which means you've got to be exceptionally quick. Your bat head must travel a greater distance to meet the ball out there and it's got to get there sooner than with any other kind of hit. In addition, since bat and ball must come together in one small area, you have almost no margin for error. This is why pull hitters are rarely consistent hitters. They either hit it or they miss it completely.
It's an all-or-nothing proposition. By trying to hit the ball so far out in front of the plate, a pull hitter automatically eliminates any possibility of making contact closer in. His bat speed, his timing, and his whole body are geared to hit the ball at the earliest possible moment. Once he's committed, there's no way he can hit the ball at any other point.
Of course, if everything works right, the results can be impressive. But even if you have a talent for home run hitting, you can't always count on everything coming together in an ideal way. That's why players who swing hard and try to pull tend to strike out—a lot.
Your chances of getting a hit are much better if you meet the ball someplace between two feet in front of the plate and directly above it. Your margin for error is much greater. You don't have to rush, and you can be more selective about what you swing at. You can also be more consistent. Compare this with the gamble involved in trying to pull the ball for a home run and taking a chance on ending up with nothing but a strikeout.
There are times when you have to take that gamble. But if you do it every at-bat, you're almost sure to ruin your average and destroy your chances for hitting consistently, which can significantly reduce your value to the team.
- Charley Lau
References and Resources
A note on methodology:
The criterion for HRC B (HR/BB >= OBP) is, one might say, not as "pure" as that of the others. A version more conceptually consistent with HRC A and HRC C would be: HR/(H+BB+HBP) >= OBP. However, when I employed that formula, it was just too restrictive, subjectively; it excluded several of the seasons I feel belong in such a discussion, including several of Killebrew's, and also Pat Seerey's 1946 performance. Seerey is truly a groundbreaking player whose story should be told in this perspective.
I tinkered with a few other more complicated versions, but none delivered what I was looking for, and besides I wanted to keep it simple. So, HR/BB >= OBP it is!
Charley Lau with Alfred Glossbrenner, The Art of Hitting .300, New York: Hawthorn, 1980, pp. 3-4.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.